As Tim Rietkerk, director of the Christian Reformed Church’s Chaplaincy and Care Ministry, took his aisle seat on the plane flying from San Diego to Seattle to attend a niece’s wedding, he breathed a sigh of relief. The check-in had gone smoothly, and the anticipation of reconnecting with family brought joy.
After buckling in, he glanced over at the two passengers next to him: a woman and a young child. He caught a snippet of their conversation and heard the words “Grand Rapids.”
He thought to himself, “What are the odds that I am sitting next to someone from Grand Rapids?”
After briefly weighing whether to strike up a conversation, he leaned over and said, “Pardon me. I heard you say ‘Grand Rapids.’ I lived there for eight years.”
The woman looked startled and replied, “I grew up there. I graduated from Creston High School and then went to Hope College (in Holland, Mich.).”
Rietkerk’s mouth dropped open. “That is amazing. I went to Calvin College and Calvin Seminary. What are the odds that we end up on this flight together to Seattle?”
The woman smiled. “I went to Princeton Seminary,” she said. “My name is Cathleen Wolff. I’m a hospital chaplain for the Reformed Church in America. We came out from Yuma for some vacation here in San Diego, and now we’re flying up to Seattle for a week.”
“You are not going to believe this,” Rietkerk replied, “but I’m the director of Chaplaincy and Care Ministry of the Christian Reformed Church. I literally spent some time yesterday communicating with your endorser about how we could partner together on some chaplain training.”
The next two hours flew by as the two chaplains shared the incredible challenges of working in the healthcare setting with the COVID pandemic evolving in the past year. Wolff supervised chaplain residents at her hospital and helped them process the numerous deaths as they ministered to patients and families. Rietkerk shared about working in a hospice and the challenge of not being able to see many patients in person.
As the captain’s voice announced the approach to Seattle, the child turned toward her mother and said, “Mom, you have a new best friend.” After exiting the aircraft, Rietkerk and Wolff introduced their families to each other and recognized how God had put them together on the plane to Seattle.
“Who knew one Alaska Airlines flight from San Diego to Seattle could bring about a ‘new best friend’?” Wolff said.
Wolff had been excited for her first visit to Seattle, but also anxious. “I do not like flying,” she said. “It was a rough morning filled with strong emotions. (But) I made it onto the plane and gave my youngest daughter the window seat.”
As she was trying to settle herself into the middle seat, a man sat down next to her. They exchanged the usual pleasantries, but because Wolff’s energy was depleted, she did not think much more conversation would happen between herself and the total stranger seated next to her.
“God clearly had other plans,” Wolff said.” I do not remember who first said what to whom, but I quickly came to find out this guy sitting next to me is the director of Chaplaincy and Care Ministry for the Christian Reformed Church. Little did he know that the gal sitting next to him is the supervisor of spiritual care in a rural community-based hospital.”
The two-and-a-half-hour journey flew by. The two chaplains conversed non-stop with more connections than are imaginable. Wolff’s daughter would casually interrupt, checking in on her mom. The guy promised he’d “give her mom back” after the flight was over.
“There were no denominational lines here,” Wolff said. “What was present was a strong, foreordained connection that I can only describe as a gift of God. To God be the glory!”
Rietkerk and Wolff saw each other again when 107 Christian Reformed chaplains and 37 Reformed chaplains met virtually Sept. 23-25 to worship, encourage, and train together.